As a 13-year-old girl, I stood outside the United Nations headquarters in New York and looked at the building in awe. This was the organisation that brought the world together. It was here that state boundaries, political affiliations and individual status were momentarily forgotten and everyone worked together to protect some of the most vulnerable populations, in some of the most dangerous places in the world. It seemed like the perfect place to be.
Building a UN that embodies its principles
Today, ten years later, I stand outside the same building and reflect back on the idealistic vision I had for the United Nations. I have now had the opportunity to intern with UNICEF and experience the UN from the inside. Like any other organisation, the UN is not ‘perfect’ and has its fair share of shortcomings. This is a moment of re-evaluation. The UN’s three pillars of human rights, development and peace and security remain as relevant as ever. And while the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide a comprehensive and challenging blueprint for action to 2030, how the UN delivers on its mandate must evolve. Again and again, the credibility of the UN is put on the line when scandals reveal a disconnect between what the UN advocates for and how it acts internally. The most recent and concerning have been reports of sexual exploitation by UN employees both outside and within its own system. The United Nations of my childhood was meant to protect. As the UN Under-Secretary-General for Field Support said, it is greatly disturbing to see the ‘protectors turn predators’.
The UN as an organisation cannot continue to work in the same manner in the future. Instead, we need to build a UN that fully embodies the principles and values it stands for and empowers its people and those it serves.
Being catalysts for change
The 800+ Young UN network: Agents for Change, of which I am a member, is working to do precisely that. When Young UN first started in 2016, it was difficult to hone in on a vision. It started as a ‘transparent, innovative, accountable, impactful UN, adaptable to challenges of the day’. Members soon realised that all the things we want the UN to be, it advocates for – from transparency and accountability, to sustainable buildings and use of resources, youth empowerment, inclusion and gender equity. Young UN’s purpose crystallised: ‘Identify, promote and implement innovative ideas that will enable the UN to fully embody the principles it stands for‘.
The UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has written that ‘the future of the UN will be determined by its readiness to change and adapt… reform is not a onetime action, it is a permanent attitude’. Young UN is cultivating such an attitude and working to create a cross-UN culture which enables employees to turn their failures into opportunities. As we proposed to the UN senior management, an aversion to failure and lack of learning from mistakes will only exacerbate the organisation’s risk-averse character and will undermine innovation and learning lessons from mistakes. The change in the organisational culture is a crucial step towards a UN that embodies the principles it stands for. One simple idea we have is to start an ‘Oath of Office’ ceremony as a regular engagement for all the incoming staff members. Why? As a way to bring UN values to life and to make a public commitment to them.
Staff members, consultants and interns all need to be encouraged and empowered to call out any unethical behaviour that they witness or experience. In the case of sexual exploitation and abuse, strict zero-tolerance policies, with extensive and clearly defined consequences, need to be created for workers at all levels as well as trainings for their implementation. It is crucially important to ensure that these policies are victim/survivor-centered and keep their interests in mind before the organisation’s. Furthermore, when coming up with policies, decision makers need to step back and listen to the concerns and suggestions of employees under their supervision. Change cannot be brought alone. Instead it can only be made a reality if the organisation operates in an open, inclusive and consultative manner that transcends sector and rank boundaries.
The positive development is that some of these changes are already taking place and at a fast pace. The UN has collectively denounced such acts of abuse and has announced policies that would respond to sexual exploitation and abuse. Leaders are making themselves more available to lower-rank officials and fostering a channel of communication that is resulting in the creation of safer spaces.
I have witnessed this policy first hand as an intern. In my very first month at the office, the Executive Director led a roundtable discussion with all the interns and made herself available for any questions or concerns that arose during our time with the UN. In another instance, the head of my division went to every cubicle on the floor and took the time to hear my concerns and ideas as an intern. The conversation around inclusion and youth representation is bubbling.
Leading by example and speaking collectively
Young UN is demonstrating the value of bringing young people to the table to share their ideas and challenge the status quo. The initiative creates a platform for young people and young-minded colleagues across the UN system to together nudge change in three ways:
- by starting a conversation on the challenges the UN faces and possible solutions,
- by leading through examples and modelling the change and behaviour we want to see and
- by advocating change as a collective voice engaging with decision makers.
In collaboration with the President of the General Assembly and Youth Envoy, we recently started a conversation on ‘next generation diplomacy’ and the future of the UN. We also created a space to talk directly with young delegates from UN Member States about where we see the UN going and how we can collectively shape the direction it takes.
A small part of the solution
One thing is clear: change cannot be obtained through mandatory trainings and individual meetings alone. It will be a constant process of questioning, experimenting, reflecting and nudging. That is what we are doing as Young UN. We are not the solution but are one contribution to and catalyst for change. We are a small part of a broader movement for change which is required at all levels within and outside the UN system.
The UN I want (and that the world needs) is not without its faults, but one that continues to learn from its faults and works relentlessly to change for the better. It is an organisation that respects its employees and the people it serves. It is a place with greater transparency and space for open and honest communication. Finally, it is a location that another child may not necessarily identify as ‘perfect’ but definitely one that brings an innate feeling of peace and progress, which is so vital to the UN’s mandate.